When Horror Movies Impact the Real World

Sometimes, life is stranger because of fiction.
By  · Published on September 8th, 2017

Sometimes, life is stranger because of fiction.

It is said that truth is stranger than fiction, but on occasion fiction will seep into the real world and influence it in very odd ways. Sometimes for better: some experts consider The Big Bang Theory partly responsible for the increased interest in physics among higher education students. Other times for worse, like that time when the dean of the US Military Academy at West Point met with the creative team behind 24 to ask them to stop featuring torture as an interrogation technique because real soldiers took Jack Bauer’s methods more seriously than their training and it was affecting their performance negatively. Unfortunately for clowns, the adaptations of Stephen King’s It are an example of the latter.

Tim Curry’s performance as the homicidal clown Pennywise in the 1990 miniseries is often cited as the source of childhood nightmares and coulrophobia (intense fear of clowns) and it helped pave the way for future dark portrayals in film and television: from Rob Zombie’s Captain Spaulding in House of 1000 Corpses to American Horror Story’s Twisty, establishing a reputation that professional jesters can’t shake off up to this day.

Now, a year after random clown sightings caused mass hysteria in different corners of the Earth, the World Clown Association is preparing its affiliates for the infamous It character’s return to the screen. They’ve even created a press kit with advice on how to handle the release of Andy Muschietti’s film adaptation and issued an official statement.

However, the backlash is slowly reaching the clowning industry despite their efforts. The WCA’s president, Pam Moody, told The Hollywood Reporter that some members had school and library shows cancelled and another associate was mistakenly reported to the police as a clown sighting after she arrived early to a birthday party and waited outside the host’s house in her car.

But the clown panic is only one of the various instances in which our cinematic fears have impacted real life. The animal kingdom, for example, has dealt with misrepresentation in horror films, as well, but the scope of the consequences goes beyond missed gigs and awkward confusions with the local authorities.

Even though murderous beasts were a thing before the 1970s, Jaws opened the doors to a flood of movies featuring killer animals that followed during the ’80s. However, it wasn’t the only thing that tide brought in: reduced beach attendance and an increase in the number of shark sightings were attributed to the film, and a study conducted by professor Joanne Cantor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison revealed that 43% of kids who saw the movie before the age of 13 experienced enduring problems with swimming even years after having seeing it.

Yet, the most lasting effect that the Jaws hysteria left was its impact over shark populations. Shark fishing tournaments (also known as kill tournaments) peaked after the movie’s release and, combined with commercial overfishing, resulted in population decrease: biologists estimate many species’ numbers have dropped by 50% and some have fallen by as much as 90% just in the Eastern American coast.

There is a silver lining, though: during the ’80s, the decline in shark population affected marine ecosystems and, in turn, fisheries, which started funding scientific research to understand sharks and their role in the food chain, sparking academic and environmental interest. Even “Jaws” author Peter Benchley spent many years of his life campaigning for their protection after the movie’s success.

While there are cases like Jaws that have impacted the real world in both negative and positive ways, there are other instances in which some people find a real-life benefit in all the fictionally induced fear and superstition.

One would think that movies like Child’s Play, Poltergeist (which also throws in scary clowns), or The Conjuring would affect doll making negatively. One would be wrong. Even though there is a stigma that hangs around them and some doll makers do hold said films responsible for it, doll sales figures remain in the billions of dollars and surpass action figures and plush toy sales.

But the strangest thing that the evil toy trend has brought out of the screen are haunted dolls. They are a thriving business on websites like eBay and Etsy, and they often sell at four-digit price tags. Some people buy them to “connect” with the spirit allegedly inhabiting them, others are merely interested in the doll for its collectability. In the same spirit, some manufacturers actively appeal to their creepy qualities and design “monster baby” lines such as Living Dead Dolls.

Other industries have also been able to capitalize on the reputation horror films have built for them. The Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel in his book “The Shining,” offers guided ghost tours and became a hotspot for paranormal investigations after the publication of the book and the release of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation. Then there’s the gas station from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was reopened as a horror barbecue. Meanwhile, others have even gathered unwanted attention: The “Amityville Horror” house changed its address to discourage tourists, and Burkittsville, Maryland, has been dealing with stolen welcome signs since The Blair Witch Project hit theaters.

However, not every horror film approach offers a business opportunity or results in mass panic: attendance to summer camps didn’t suffer after the release of Friday the 13th and, despite the locals’ concern at the time of the release, Hostel didn’t put off enough tourists to hurt Slovakia’s travel industry significantly. Christmas and other December holidays remain unaffected even if there is an entire sub-genre dedicated to holiday horror.

In fact, it seems that the horror films that stir more intense responses outside the movie theater are the ones that tap into very primal instincts. Fear of natural predators is genetically ingrained, while it has been suggested that people find clowns and dolls unsettling because, like androids and digital animation, their human likeness produce cognitive dissonance and a sense of eeriness (known as the uncanny valley theory). But within the gap between what we accept as real and what we dismiss as fiction, all these odd anecdotes coexist, making life a little bit more interesting.

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